Shazam! $176,000 For A Comic!

March 25, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Eat green kryptonite, Superman. BAM! POW! THWACK! Take that, Batman. With help from Baltimore businessman Stephen A. Geppi, Captain Marvel just left you in the dust.

Mr. Geppi said yesterday that he had paid $176,000 earlier this month for a single copy of Whiz Comics No. 2, the volume that introduced America to humble newsboy Billy Batson, who turned into superhero Captain Marvel when he spoke the magic word SHAZAM.

It was the highest price ever paid for a comic book, said Jerry Weist, comic book consultant for Sotheby's auction house in New York. He said the purchase from an anonymous private collector in Virginia easily surpassed the $137,500 deal announced earlier this week in Los Angeles for a copy of Action Comics No. 1, the book that introduced Superman.

Whiz Comics No. 2, which is sometimes known as Whiz Comics No. 1 because it really was the first edition, sold for 10 cents a copy when it came out in 1940. That means the copy Mr. Geppi bought has appreciated 176 million percent in 55 years.

Mr. Geppi, 45, who built his own fortune in the comic book business, said he spent a fortune on the book because he couldsmell a good deal -- literally.

"Those who are really in the know can identify the books to some degree by sense of smell," said Mr. Geppi, founder and president of Diamond Comic Distributors in Timonium. This book, he said, is the "best copy in existence."

Mr. Geppi should know. He bought the same copy of the same book once before -- for $7,000. But he sold it in 1983 for $10,000. He said he used that money to build his business, which has since become the largest and most powerful company in the comic book industry.

"I never regret anything I've done because it's always done with a purpose," he said.

Indeed, comic books have been very good to Mr. Geppi. They have made him wealthy enough that in recent years he's been able to buy a minority stake in the Baltimore Orioles and full ownership of Baltimore magazine -- not to mention his $176,000 comic book.

Mr. Geppi said that's actually not so much compared with other collectibles. And in fact, according to the 1995 Guinness Book of World Records, a Japanese collector paid $2.4 million in 1991 for the famous Penny Black stamp, which didn't portray a single superhero. Nevertheless, comic book collecting is hardly small change. Mr. Geppi said annual sales amount to "hundreds of millions of dollars, at a minimum."

The central reason that Mr. Geppi paid so much for the Whiz Comics book is that Edgar Church's mother never got to throw out his collection -- because he didn't start it until he was in his 40s.

According to Mr. Geppi, Mr. Church was a successful Colorado commercial artist who started collecting comic books in 1938. With the help of a Denver news agency, Mr. Church continued to collect a single copy of every new comic to come on the market through 1956. And instead of pawing through them with dirty hands as most of his contemporary collectors did, Mr. Church stored his 20,000 books under perfect conditions in the dry, cool atmosphere of the Colorado mountains.

Years after Mr. Church died, the collection passed into the possession of a Denver business called Mile-High Comics. These comics are now known reverently as the "Mile-High Collection," and books from Mr. Church's hoard command a considerable DTC premium over the book value of copies in near-mint condition, Mr. Geppi said.

The price Mr. Geppi paid for Captain Marvel's debut gives a measure of respect to a superhero who faded from the scene as Superman and Batman went on to fame in movies and TV series.

"Most Americans have forgotten that in the 1940s and the 1950s, Captain Marvel was outselling Superman. He was the more popular character," Mr. Weist said.

Alas, Captain Marvel's superpowers were no match for those of lawyers. DC Comics sued Captain Marvel's publisher, Fawcett, claiming the captain was too similar to DC's Superman. DC won, and Captain Marvel's SHAZAM-ing days were over.

So what are Mr. Geppi's long-term plans for the book?

"Keep it," he said. "Maybe one day I'll sell it again. You can never say something's not for sale because you never know."

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